Until now, Turkey has spent billions of dollars caring for Syrian refugees, providing them with free medical care and the right to an education. Yet more than 400,000 children are still unable to attend school because most of the Syrian families are living outside camps, mostly in poverty, and are struggling to secure work that pays enough to cover the basic necessities of food, clothing, rent and transportation, aid groups say.
Other factors preventing children from attending school include language barriers, confusion over enrollment procedures and transportation-related issues, said Selin Unal, a spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee program in Turkey.
The Turkish government introduced work permits for Syrians in January to help stop exploitation in the labor market so that parents could earn enough to send their children to school. But only 10,300 Syrians have gained the right to work under the new regulation, according to the Ministry of Labor, mainly because Turkish employers have been reluctant to grant contracts that would require them to pay minimum wage.
Turkish officials have acknowledged the pitfalls of the labor laws and have vowed to increase the number of workplace inspections to help enforce the new regulations, which are aimed at providing higher incomes and cracking down on child labor.
Mrs. Suleiman, Ahmad’s mother, said she had not heard about the work permits and had recently had to quit her job washing dishes at a restaurant after her boss beat her when she complained that her $90 weekly pay was a month late.
Most of Ahmad’s $60 weekly wages go toward the $270 rent for the narrow room where he lives with his mother and three siblings in Istanbul’s low-income Tarlabasi neighborhood.
Six days a week, Ahmad leaves home at 8 a.m. and walks to a nearby textile factory where he spends his days buttoning shirts as sewing machines rattle in the background. He is given a 30-minute break at lunchtime and two 15-minute tea breaks with biscuits that he buys with his 80-cent daily allowance from his mother.
“I enjoy working, and I don’t get treated badly,” Ahmad said, smiling at a Kurdish colleague helping him attach tags to a rail of shirts. “I’ve got to take care of my family, and this is the only way to do that.”
But in Syria, Ahmad’s dream was to become a singer.
“I have a really good voice,” he said blushing. “I’m serious. I sing for my colleagues at work and they love it.”
Yet when asked what his ideal job would be, Ahmad dropped his smile for a second. “A savior,” he said. “I want to save everyone from poverty, because I’m poor and I don’t want anyone to go through what I’ve been through.”
To achieve that goal, Ahmad said, he knows he needs to go back to school. “It’s the only way to make more money,” he said.
The manager of the factory acknowledged that Ahmad was too young to be working and should be in school, but said he employed him not because Ahmad was cheap to hire, but because he wanted to help him.
Ahmad is the only child who works at the factory, but in the Zeytinburnu neighborhood, one of Istanbul’s textile hubs, child labor is rampant. In one workshop full of children, one 11-year old was embarrassed by my presence. Aware that his manager was watching, the boy looked away and focused on cutting fabrics and folding clothes.
Next to him was a sewing machine operator, Abdul Rahman, 15, who said he had no idea how much he was paid because his wages went directly to his family. Two Syrian brothers, Basar, 16, and Mohammed Nour, 15, swept the floor of the workshop. They came to Turkey alone from Aleppo to make money to send back to their family.
Together, they earn around $250 a month and send $200 back home. Unable to afford accommodations, they are allowed to sleep under the workshop benches at the factory, in makeshift beds made from a single blanket and fabric scraps.
Back in Tarlabasi, Ahmad’s mother has come up with a plan that will allow her to send her two younger children to school. She will marry off her 15-year-old daughter, Ayla, to a 22-year-old Kurdish man, whose family has offered to send her to school and help the family financially.
“This way at least the two youngest can also go to school, while Ahmad and I work,” she said.
When asked how she felt about getting married, Ayla looked at her painted fingernails and paused. “It hasn’t really hit me yet, but I’m not scared,” she said. “I’m happy, and I need to do this for the family.”
Mrs. Suleiman shot an anxious look at her daughter. “She doesn’t know anything yet. But what choice do we have? It’s our fate.”